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Ex-CIA Officer on 'War on Terror'

By Richard Fricker
December 13, 2005

Editor’s Note: Michael Scheuer worked as an analyst for a CIA unit tracking – and trying to understand – al-Qaeda. Under the name “Anonymous,” he wrote Imperial Hubris, a critical look at U.S. counter-terrorist strategies. He was interviewed recently about the War on Terror by journalist Richard Fricker. A version of this interview first appeared in the Swiss publication, SonntagsBlick.

Regarding so-called “rendition” flights to other countries and secret CIA prisons:

Scheuer: “From the start, the [CIA’s] clandestine service would much prefer to bring these people to the United States. One of the Cold War hangovers in America is we are still looking for people to do our dirty work. We were so used to, during the Cold War, of using proxies that we’re still doing that. Look how much we depend on the Pakistanis to capture Osama bin Laden. There is a certain process of returning to adulthood that has not taken place in the U.S. leadership.

“There’s just a huge misperception that we are kind of invulnerable and we can have other people do our bidding. In terms of the Islamic militants, on both sides of the aisle in America, there is a huge self-delusion that these people are gangsters and deviants and criminals and that they are such a small part of Muslim society and that we can arrest them one man at a time.

“So we’re still playing this game of super cops and robbers and we’re really not serious about protecting America or destroying al-Qaeda and its allies because we still treat it as a super law enforcement problem. …

“I resigned from the CIA in part to try and make them aware that al-Qaeda and bin Laden are heroes in the Islamic world, to a huge percentage. Not because they believe in what al-Qaeda does but in the sense of standing up to the United States. …

“Al-Qaeda is a liberation movement in many ways in the sense that their main target is not the United States, but to get us out of the way and then to overthrow the Israelis and … Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the tyrannies as they see them.

“The bottom line for me is we don’t have to empathize or sympathize with
these people, but if we don’t understand the numbers that are involved and
the motivations they feel because of our policies, we’re never going to be
able to protect ourselves.”

Regarding poor intelligence about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction:

Scheuer: “The intelligence community, as well the people who worked on counter-terrorism, clearly told the administration that an invasion of Iraq would break the back of a fight against bin Laden because it would validate virtually everything he had said about the United States over the years. This administration came into office with a contempt for the intelligence community.

“There’s not one American politician willing to say ‘they don’t hate us for what do, or how we live. They may not like it, but they’re not going to blow themselves up over it. But they will blow themselves up over what we do in the Islamic world.’ And, that has been the problem under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush.”

Regarding the Islamic world’s historical reference point of the Crusades:

Scheuer: “The historical awareness of Muslims is extraordinary, in the sense that 65 percent of the Islamic world is illiterate, but all of them know their history, from having the Koran read to them, from having the Prophet’s biography read to them. When bin Laden makes an illusion to something that happened in the Seventh Century, people get it within a few words. So yes, the resonance of the Crusades is very strong.”

Regarding
Israel’s stake in U.S. policy:

Scheuer: “We are at the point where we can no longer tolerate that Israel dictates the policy the U.S. must follow. It’s time we play the great power in the relationship and not the minor power. Fifty years is enough, I think Israel should do whatever it needs to do to defend itself. I have no qualms about that, but I don’t think it’s worth one dead American.”

Regarding the impact of the
Iraq War on the al-Qaeda problem:

Scheuer: “I think the debacle in Iraq is the real horrific thing that’s coming down the road. Al-Qaeda is now al-Qaedaism and has really taken hold in other parts of the world. The media, especially American media, is really bore-sighted on Iraq. But if you look at Thailand and the Philippines, the Northern Caucuses, northern Nigeria, militant Islam is really gaining traction. These will be problem areas in the not too distant future.

“I also think that the rather sophomoric argument about setting a deadline for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq only makes the enemy strong. I don’t think either party is serious about this. There will be a pull out just in time for the 2006 elections. …

“The real tragic thing about Iraq is that the administration didn’t put much thought into what they were doing, especially about the Sunnis. They thought they would box them into a place where the Sunnis would attack and we could kill them.

“In the thinking of the Islamic militant, Iraq is contiguous territory to countries they were never able to get to before. They are always looking for a Pakistan, it was their safe haven against the Russians. Bin Laden has explained that the reason he has not sent fighters to the Balkans or Israel is because there was not a safe-haven border from which they could operate. Iraq now gives them safe haven to attack Syria, Israel, Jordan and Turkey. …

“The militants aren’t going to be bought off with economic improvements. One of the great mistakes that Americans make is to believe that these people are motivated by poverty, or the lack of education or that they don’t have prospects for a career. Al-Qaeda and its allies are mostly middle- and upper-class educated people. They appeal to educated people, or they wouldn’t spend so much time dominating the Internet.

“There seems to be this belief that if we build schools it will make militant
Muslims un-militant. I don’t think that’s true. … They’re very rational actors.”

Regarding what’s happened to militants captured as early as 1995:

Scheuer: “I don’t think anybody has been released. … People we picked up are being held someplace else. I don’t think we held anyone until after 9/11. But the rendition program initially delivered people to countries where they were wanted. [These people are either still incarcerated] or they’re dead. We never picked up anyone who wasn’t wanted by the authorities.

“The rendition program was designed to do two things: to take people off the streets that we knew were a threat to the United States, and two, at the time of their arrest, to pick up any hard-copy documents they had. No one was ever picked up so they could be talked to. Any intelligence service will tell you that al-Qaeda guys are trained to fight from the jail cell by giving false information mixed with some good information that’s dated. …

“We still behave as if this were still the terrorism of the Eighties. The terrorism of that era was a lethal nuisance, but it was never a national security threat. The problem, for the U.S. at least is that the possibility of a large attack is a reality and the possibility of another attack is on the horizon.

“What’s going to happen in the United States is that there’s going to be a much larger attack than 9/11 or there will be a kind of nuclear attack with a weapon acquired from the former Soviet Union. The surest sign that neither party in the country takes the possibility of an attack seriously is that we have done nothing to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons.

“I think Iraq is going to be central to the threat for the next decade or more. And, I think we have probably signed the death warrant for Jordan. I think the two attacks we have seen there are just the start of what’s going to happen. Bin Laden has always said the great human reserve for Islam is Asia, so I assume we will see things continue to evolve in that region. …

“Part of the reason we haven’t seen al-Qaeda is because bin Laden had to satisfy an enormous amount of critics within the Islamic militant movement before he attacks us again. He was criticized first for not having warned us enough. Secondly, for not offering us a chance to convert. Both of those things sound silly, but they are very clear demands made by the prophet before Muslims attack.

“The third criticism was that bin Laden did not have enough religious justification to kill that many Americans. He had to close those three loops. From about the spring of 2002 prior to the election, he gave four speeches directly to the American people saying that ‘because your governments policy depends on the support of the public, I can only assume that if you keep voting for the people that maintain these policies that you approve of them.’ The last one was on the eve of the election. …

“The third thing he did was to secure from a Saudi sheik was religious authorization to use nuclear weapons against the United States, that was in May 2003. … Al Zarqawi has said, ‘thank God for letting the Americans invade Iraq because now they will be defeated if they stay and defeated if they leave.’ …

“It’s so much more than Israel. We are so dependent, along with our European allies on oil out of the Gulf, we still are going to be supporting the al-Saud tyranny. We’re going to support the Egyptian tyranny because of the peace process. We’re still going to be in Afghanistan. …

“The real danger for America is they will turn to the idea of a Marshall Plan or New Deal and that by pumping tons of money into the Middle East to build schools that that will somehow cure militancy. [What will cure the problem is] disengagement. What this is about is the future of Islamic civilization. We are bearing the brunt right now because we are in the way.”

Regarding claims that Islamic militants seek world domination:

Scheuer: “That’s the rather silly argument of the neoconservatives. The idea that we’re facing a united Islamic juggernaut is just nonsense. The only thing that creates unity within Islam right now is hatred of U.S. policy. As we become less of a focus, the energies of the Islamist will begin to focus on Israel and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states. …

“It is absolutely in their [neoconservatives’] interest to make us believe the militants hate us because we are democratic and have liberty. The idea that someone blows himself up to try to destroy Mubarak and you call him a ‘freedom-hater,’ there’s a disconnect there. Mubarak is a police state, the Saudis are a police state. The Islamists may not have the same definition of freedom that we have, freedom is different in every culture, but there is every bit of evidence that the Muslim militant movement is as much a liberation movement as it is anything else.”

Regarding the possible effect of a Democratic victory in 2006 congressional elections:

Scheuer: “It could make it worse. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are seen as friends of Israel, ... and if the Democrats come in, they are viewed by the militants as more pro-Israel than the Republicans.”

Regarding differences in “renditions” under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:

Scheuer: “In a sense, I would say these prisoners are better treated in the hands of Americans than they were when the Clinton administration wanted us to take these people to places like Egypt. It’s kind of a disconnect for me. The Clinton administration wanted no part of treating these people in a manly fashion and keeping them as prisoners of war. …

“The difference between the two administrations is that now we are holding people. Under the Clinton administration they didn’t want any part of it. They wanted us to give them to the Egyptians or other Middle Eastern countries. …I think the big difference in the Bush administration is that we hold people at Guantanamo and in Iraq. …

“The Clinton guys didn’t want to hold these people. So we said, ‘OK, we’ll focus on guys that have outstanding warrants and try to get them returned to their country of origin.’ We said, ‘You know, Mr. President, Mr. Sandy Berger, Mr. Richard Clarke, that if they go to any Middle Eastern country, they’re not going to be treated the way they would be in the United States. We said the State Department puts out a negative human rights report on virtually every state where we would send these guys. What do you want us to do?’

”They asked, ‘Will the countries that agree to accept these people agree to treat them according to their own laws?’ We said, “Sure, we bet they will do that.’ And, that’s what satisfied them. Mr. Clinton and Mr. (Richard) Clarke have been trying to re-write history by saying we insisted that these countries treat these people by the standard of international law and the law in America and that was never the case. …

“The rendition program has been enormously successful and well conducted except for the last step, where these people were to be held. In that sense, I think the United States has shot itself in the foot. If we had treated people who declared war on us as prisoners of war and brought them to America and treated them as we did prisoners in World War II, the world might not like it, but we wouldn‘t have all the trouble we have at the moment.”


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